Perfect Days Is Wim Wenders’ Sweet, Patient Return

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Perfect Days Is Wim Wenders’ Sweet, Patient Return

Actor and recently christened Cannes Film Festival award-winner Koji Yakusho introduced my New York Film Festival screening of his new Wim Wenders-helmed film, Perfect Days (which shares its name with the Lou Reed song it samples) with a plea. He implored us to make use of Tokyo’s magnificent public restrooms if we were ever to visit the city. Indeed, that is perhaps the most crucial and lingering thought I’ve had since watching Perfect Days, and which became abundantly clear mere minutes in. 

I was struck not only by the multitude of public restrooms ready for use at a moment’s notice in Tokyo, but the quality of these restrooms. One such chamber, which at first confuses a foreigner, employs some sort of visual forcefield once you lock the door from the inside, turning the transparent glass vestibule completely opaque for privacy. I then envisioned a utopian New York City, where clean and well-maintained restrooms lay at every block, and I no longer have to simply pray to God that I’m near a Target or Trader Joe’s when the need arises. As a recent How To with John Wilson articulated earlier this summer, public restrooms are another sobering reminder that the so-called “advanced” United States falls woefully behind other countries more readily willing to meet the needs of its public.

I heavily digress—because in real life these same public restrooms might not have a person like Hirayama (Yakusho) to take care of them. Hirayama is a quiet, solitary man who revels in the bare-bones simplicity of his life, happy to wake up before the sun creeps out and start his day of making toilet bowls sparkle. Hirayama chooses his words so carefully that most of the time he does not speak at all, especially when paired with his motormouthed “Tokyo Toilet” cohort Takashi (Tokio Emoto), who practically speaks for him, but establishes Hirayama’s persistent peace of mind. 

When Hirayama is not spending the bulk of his time tending to bathrooms, he’s taking photos of the sun, peeking behind the trees, with an old Olympia film camera, or showering at the public bathhouse, or digging up saplings to repot in his home, or listening to his ancient cassette tapes of Lou Reed and Nina Simone. Hirayama cherishes those tapes to the extent that when Takashi reveals he can sell them for a pretty penny at a record shop, Hirayama doesn’t even entertain the thought. Of course, Takashi only wants to sell them so he has money to take out his sort of-girlfriend, Aya (Aoi Yamada). Rather than part with the tapes, Hirayama simply gives the lovelorn young man some cash—a kindhearted way to finally shut him up.

Hirayama also seems to cherish his fleeting moments of connection with random strangers while out on the job, none more-so than the chef and singer whose restaurant he frequents, and to whom Hirayama does finally grant his careful words. But the rhythm of the man’s tranquil day-to-day is interrupted when his teenage niece Niko (Arisa Nakano) drops by his tiny apartment for an unannounced visit, having run away from her mother, Hirayama’s estranged, wealthy sister. 

The almost absurd distance at which Hirayama lives his life separated from a certain level of modernity must contend with the young Zoomer, who nevertheless still carries around the analog film camera that her uncle once gifted her. Niko’s presence becomes welcome in the old man’s life, whose existence does not exude loneliness but rather a contentment with solitude. Nevertheless, the two disparate people, separated by generations and tax brackets, find joy in their blossoming companionship, as Niko accompanies her uncle to work and offers him the help that Takashi often does not grant him.

Though directed by the German Wenders, Perfect Days (the director’s first film since critical and box office bomb Submergence in 2017) was recently chosen as Japan’s entry for next year’s Academy Awards. The film’s co-writer, Takuma Takasaki, admitted before my screening that the film made him appreciate Tokyo, a city he knows and loves very well already, even more. It’s clear that Wenders has an extensive rapport with Japan’s capital, and his camera (cinematography credited to Franz Lustig) lovingly paints the city as a place defined by its coexistence between urbanism and nature—like Hirayama attempting to coexist in simplicity against the demands of the 2020s. 

Yet, there’s a problem: Everything’s a little too sweet, too tranquil, too lovely and charming and kissed by the sounds of rustling leaves. Perhaps that’s the point, as the final scene’s extended close-up on Hirayama’s face reveals the man’s inner turmoil, with nothing quite so neatly wrapped up. The brief revelation of his sister’s vast wealth and the intense estrangement from his ailing father only invite more questions as to the nature of Hirayama’s current way of life. Did he choose to “live in a different world,” as his sister quietly disparages him, to negate his rich upbringing, to escape abuse, or both?

Such ambiguity is welcome, yet even before Hirayama comes to clean them, the public restrooms are pleasantly immune to the filth one would expect to find there. When he discovers a game of tic-tac-toe tucked away while on the job, Hirayama begins to engage in an anonymous back-and-forth that teeters the film from sweet to syrupy, into a sort of “cutesy naturalism” that Perfect Days never quite escapes. Still, there is despair and heartache tucked into the sentimental folds of the frame, all of which is carried masterfully by the great Koji Yakusho. Yakusho, with his kind, grandfatherly face, has both a calming and anchoring presence as the meditative Hirayama. His nuanced portrayal commands attention in every scene without outright demanding it, exemplifying the Zen mindset of his character.

Perfect Days revels in its ambient minimalism as much as its own protagonist, though something is missing. One might ask for more from Perfect Days, a film that finds itself a bit too understated in its understatement. But sometimes it is just nice to be reminded that there are pockets of beauty in a world which does all it can to extinguish them—like finding a store that doesn’t make you buy something in order to get a code to use the bathroom.

Director: Wim Wenders
Writer: Wim Wenders, Takuma Takasaki
Starring: Kôji Yakusho, Yumi Asô, Tokio Emoto
Release Date: October 11, 2023 (New York Film Festival)

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.

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